The Product: Beets and Cheese, All Dressed Up

by Katherine Sacks
Antoinette Bruno and Katherine Sacks
February 2012

Recipe

Biography

Beet Stats

Cost:
$3 to $4 a pound

Season:
Fall through spring

Prep:
Scrub beets with a brush; remove roots and tops.

Having beet-goat cheese salad on the menu is as par-for-the-course as the quintessential chicken dish, and business-savvy chefs steer toward these unapologetically straightforward flavors to make sure they please every customer base. As Chef Peter Abarcar Jr. explains of his own salad on Hapuna Beach's Coast Grille menu, "Everyone does a beet salad, because customers expect it."

Those expectations also come from years of beet devotion from top chefs. The typical French salad was course de rigueur for Joël Robuchon; Wolfgang Puck made it famous in the 1980s with a layered expressionistic interpretation; and it became simply iconic in Chez Panisse's baked version. The earthy flavor of beets can be off-putting (some might venture dirty), and creamy goat cheese is just the calming flavor to mellow out the deep bite.

Today you can find the combo gracing tables everywhere from high-end Carillon and Perry St. to creature comforts of mass production at Starbucks. And no wonder, the dish is a powerhouse of nutrition: beets offer up high levels of folate, manganese, and potassium, while goat cheese is a low(er)-calorie, high-protein dairy. And as creative chefs tend to throw tradition by the wayside, the typical beet-and-cheese pairing has gotten a few updates recently that even our demanding palates can get behind.

Staff Meal
Roasted Big Island Beets Salad, Garlic "Sand," Big Island Goat Cheese, Poha Berry, and Saba

At Coast Grille, Abarcar updates the conventional salad by celebrating Hawaii's bounty. "It's really unique that we are able to grow beets in Hawaii," he explains of the mixture of gold, red, and chioggias in his salad. "Nearly 80 percent of the island is zoned agriculture. The whole island is one big ranch." Combined with whipped Big Island goat cheese, Poha berries (a wild gooseberry native to the island), and lava salt, his creative salad easily breaks the boundaries of expectation. The rich lava salt and tart Poha berries cut through the (often mundane) musky beets and smooth cheese.

Staff Meal
Farm Burger No.3 Black Board Grass-Fed Burger

Chef Terry Koval takes this winning combination and sticks it between a fluffy bun and 100 percent grass-fed beef patty at Decatur, Georgia's Farm Burger. Not your typical burger stop, this restaurant packs the house with a menu of addictive farm-fresh cuisine, including bacon-studded sautéed kale, pickled beef tongue with cauliflower purée, and vegetable-laced burgers. This combination puts a salad of pickled beets, arugula, local Georgia goat cheese, and Green Goddess dressing on top of the burger. "I love beets," says Koval. "I knew it would work: the pickling of beets, the creaminess of the goat cheese, and a bite of arugula."

From dinner to dessert, Chef Mia Calamia of New Orleans' La Divinia Gelateria applies the savory flavors to her beet-lime and goat's milk pepper gelatos. Poached beets create a sorbetto base (mellowed out of its earthiness with the tang of lime juice), and peppery goat-cheese gelato adds a creamy compliment. It's the sweet take on a salad composition that often needs candied nuts or vinaigrettes to help round out the coarse flavors of the beet.

But chefs certainly don't just work within the beet-goat cheese box. "This generation expects something more creative, not just the typical goat cheese salad," says Koval. Beyond whipped, burger-stuffed, and gelato-ized, savvy chefs continue to up-the-ante on the classic flavor pairing by taking the goat cheese out completely, in lieu of rich blue cheeses or creamy sauces.

Staff Meal
Spice-Poached Red Beet, Baby Lettuces, Fines Herbes, Toasted Pistachio, and Buttermilk Vinaigrette

At Cambridge, Massachusetts's Bondir, Chef Jason Bond emphasizes vegetables' role on the plate, and his spice-poached beet with buttermilk vinaigrette is a prime example of his delicate hand when it comes to produce. An enchanting presentation—what seems to be a whole beet magically falls into tiny diced cubes at the touch of a fork—frames an equally enchanting combination of sweet, spice, and earth. Crunchy toasted pistachios, crème fraîche, and peppery mustard oil finish off the dish. And a tender char emphasizes those dusty undertones in the charred beets at New York City's Super Linda, where Chef John Martinez swaps out the goat cheese and arugula for an in-your-face Valdeon and watercress. Candied pecans add sweet crunch and luscious bacon mayo adds richness in this decadent twist.

Of course, when looking at beets and goat cheese on a menu, it's a bit hard to not (at least momentarily) think cliché: "It just seems sort of hotelish," admits Koval, a bit sheepishly. But then, he quickly admits, "It's still an incredible salad to this day." It's a classic for a reason.